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Brief to the Indian Residential School Research Group

This paper was provided to the IRSRG by a member and comments on three aspects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission;  

  • The stories in the TRC’s report do not pose a threat to the facts.  
  • British Columbia school attendance has always been compulsory, and  
  • To receive the Family Allowance, all children had to attend school. 

Stories versus facts:  

Our society’s increased appetite for stories (e.g. “clickbait”) weakens our discernment of facts,  but has not replaced them. Robert Fulford’s Triumph of Narrative (CBC, 1999) describes its  central place in our lives, then explains why it should be questioned. Narrative make us more  empathetic to others but because it “manipulates our consciousness,” we ought to “view  narrative critically”. More recently, Parul Sehgal wrote in an engaging article “Tell No Tales”  that “Storytelling has been sold as the solution to everything. But it comes at a cost,” and “What  is it that story does not allow us to see?” (New Yorker, July 10 & 17, 2023, p. 68).  

The TRC report bundled stories that needed to be told, but skimped on wrapping them in facts.  The critics of the report don’t need to dismiss the stories, but they should consider how their own  writing should explore or define or resolve the boundary between stories and a forensic standard  of fact. Nothing requires the two to be set side by side. Accepting — even honouring TRC stories  — does not conflict with doing the research the TRC was expected to do, and did not. I would  argue that fostering tension between these poles serves no useful purpose. 

School attendance:  

Since Confederation in 1871, all British Columbia children have had to attend schools which  were strictly non-sectarian from the outset. No provincial funds would be given to  denominational schools. Attendance was compulsory for children age seven to fourteen and  living less than three miles from a schoolhouse (see A History of Public Education in British  Columbia by F. Henry Johnson (UBC Press, 1964)). A 1959 UBC Master’s thesis titled “Indian  Education in British Columbia” by Lester Ray Peterson, explains that “The Government of  British Columbia … was not prepared to undertake the task of Indian education in 1871, and the  effect … has been to leave the management of Indian schools under the control of the Christian  church denominations which started education of the natives.”  

In 1894, federal legislation stressed attendance as a necessary condition for the denominational  schools to receive per capita grants. In 1907, 36 of 53 such schools were day schools with 1060  pupils, while 17 boarding and industrial (i.e. residential) schools had 889 pupils. Whether or not 

Indigenous children were “forced” to go to residential schools is a fraught question, but it must  be seen in the light of the schools’ efforts to educate pupils having poor or no English and very  low attendance, and to support isolated families facing starvation and disease we seem unable to  imagine. 

Peterson reported that where there were no Indian schools, Indian children “were allowed” to  attend regular provincial schools. He does not discuss the effects of changes to federal legislation  in 1920 which enabled federal funding for non-denominational day schools, perhaps in  cooperation with provincial authorities. Even with joint efforts to increase schooling, in the forty  years following 1907, only one in three Indigenous children reached grade six. 

The Family Allowance 

Here’s my story: As a child in the 1940s and 50s, the monthly arrival of the Family Allowance  cheque meant my mother received cash to buy what her children needed. She believed the money  was for us and not our parents. Canada had tens of thousands of mothers like her, including  Indigenous mothers. The amounts paid starting in 1945 were; five dollars per month for a child  under six, increasing to eight dollars at age sixteen when eligibility ended. There was a catch: the  program required children to be enrolled in school, so each province agreed to track and report  attendance. The allowance was also an incentive to increase registration of births so all children  were included. 

We are fortunate to have a massive (506 pages!) PhD thesis by Frank R. Bruel, “Family  Allowances in Canada” (McGill U, 1951). He states (p.305) “Indians are, in fact, considered  exactly like other Canadian residents as regards their eligibility for Family Allowances”. Some  Indigenous families received direct payment at their nearest post office but when their children  attended residential schools, it fell to Indian agents to ensure the school received a child’s  allowances for the months the child attended, and report when the child stopped attending. The  application of Family Allowances to pupils of residential schools offers a rich topic for province  by province study, but for now it’s enough to conclude that the allowance must have helped  Indigenous parents who wanted their children to be educated.  

It is pointless, maybe even damaging to challenge the stories and the now-conventional wisdom  that Indigenous children were “forced” to go to residential school. Let the stories stand, not least  because a challenge diverts attention away a century of efforts, by both levels of government,  and by all parents, to ensure Canada’s children were educated.

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